For three decades, Turkey’s terrorist threat has been viewed largely through the lens of Kurdish militancy. Yet just as one front closes down,[1] a new hazard has emerged, primarily as a result of the current war in Syria. On May 11, 2013, Turkey suffered the deadliest terrorist attack in its modern history when 52 people were killed in twin car bombings in Reyhanli, a town in Hatay Province close to the Syrian border.[2] The attack was not broadly reported or analyzed by Turkish media outlets[3] following a court-enforced blackout, but Turkish authorities arrested nine Turkish men—believed to be linked to Syrian intelligence groups—for their role in the attacks.[4]

Mihrac Ural, an Alawite Turk from Hatay Province who has been an important pro-Damascus militia figure in the conflict in Syria, has been widely blamed for the bombings. Operating from Syria, where he commands a shabiha[5] militia group, Ural presents a real and pressing threat to Turkey’s security today. This article analyzes the background and activities of Mihrac Ural,[6] the recent anti-Turkish operations of the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C), and the effects of the Syria conflict on the security of the Republic of Turkey. It finds that the increasing destruction of the Syrian state will likely contribute to new terrorist threats against Turkey, forcing Ankara to recalibrate its security and counterterrorism policies.

Syria Violence Spilling into Turkey
The Turkish government’s open financial and political support for the Syrian political opposition and rebels fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime has angered many Turks, with opposition political parties and religious minorities the most critical of these voices. Among the latter, Turkey’s estimated 400,000 ethnic Arab Alawite population—which shares the same religious beliefs as the ruling al-Assad family—is an important constituency, as many support the Syrian regime.[7]

Although the economy in Turkey’s Hatay Province has largely managed to absorb the effects of the war over the border in Syria,[8] sectarian and religious hostility is a major source of discord. Festering unease between the mostly Sunni refugees fleeing from Syria’s Aleppo and Idlib provinces and the Alawite communities in Turkey’s Hatay Province have pitted Alawite and Alevi Turks living in Hatay and other southern Turkish provinces against both Syrian refugees and rebels.[9] In September 2012, for example, the mostly Alawite community of Samandag in Hatay forced its largely Sunni, pro-revolution refugee population from their town.[10] An International Crisis Group report from April 2013 further identified the numerous points of contention between refugees and rebel fighters and the resident population in Hatay. “Several camps and the areas around them are frequently used by Syrian opposition fighters, in large part Sunni Muslim, as off-duty resting places to visit their families, receive medical services and purchase supplies,” the report stated. “This is exacerbating sensitive ethnic and sectarian balances, particularly in Hatay Province, where more than one third of the population is of Arab Alevi descent [Turkish Alawites] and directly related to Syria’s Alawites.”[11]

In an attempt to ease tensions, on May 25, two weeks after the bombings, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Reyhanli, stating: “We have not been, are not, and will not be abandoning you as a government or as a state. I simply have this favor to ask of you: do not give a premium to those organizations exploiting this situation trying to create discord amongst us.”[12]

In spite of Erdogan’s request, there remains a feeling of historical discrimination against Turkish Alawites by elements of the Turkish state, which under the specter of war in Syria has pulled the community toward the al-Assad regime and away from Ankara’s own policies and goals.[13] One key Turkish dissident who has capitalized on these tensions is Mihrac Ural.

The Case of Mihrac Ural
Although Turkey detained nine Turkish citizens following the Reyhanli bombings, one figure, Mihrac Ural, has emerged as a primary suspect.[14] A number of sources have claimed that Ural, a Turkish Alawite who fled to Syria in the early 1980s before reportedly being offered citizenship by the Syrian government, planned the attack.[15] According to the Turkish newspaper Zaman, he bribed Adana prison guards to win his freedom in 1980 before fleeing to Syria.[16] When Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan was exiled in Syria between 1980 and 1998, he and Ural were reportedly acquaintances, sharing a common enemy in the Turkish state.[17]

Mihrac Ural is the current leader of the Urgent Ones (Acilciler),[18] a splinter group from the Turkish People’s Liberation Party/Front (THKP/C).[19] Acilciler formed in 1975 seeking the return of Hatay Province to Syria.[20] Inside Syria today, Ural is believed to be the commander of the “Syrian Resistance”—an Alawite militia based along the Alawite-dominated western coast.[21] This militia has been blamed for a number of massacres in Sunni villages in Syria’s coastal regions, with Ural threatening to “cleanse” at least one of the towns.[22]

Ural has also been blamed for instigating unrest between Syrian refugees and Alawite populations in Hatay Province by organizing rallies in support of al-Assad and against Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).[23] Most recently seen at the funeral of Syrian state TV journalist Yara Abbas in Damascus on May 28, 2013,[24] Ural has been noted among Syria’s fearful coastal Alawite communities as having oratory skills akin to that of a prophet or visionary.[25]

In May, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he believed the same individual responsible for the massacre in Baniyas on May 3 was responsible for the bombings in Reyhanli, a subtle reference to Ural.[26] Ural, however, blamed Israel for carrying out the Reyhanli attacks, and in September 2012 said he had not been to Hatay for 32 years.[27]

Despite his denials, Ural gave an interview with BBC Turkish in September 2012 saying that he had been fighting for the al-Assad regime in Syria.[28] More recent videos posted to the internet appear to support that claim.[29]

Recruiting Alawite Turks for Assad?
In his interview with the BBC in September 2012, Ural claimed that young people from the Adana, Hatay and Mersin regions in southern Turkey have fought on the Syrian government’s side inside Syria, although he claimed he was not involved in recruiting or encouraging Alawite Turks to do so.[30] “We did not make such a call,” Ural said. “They come here looking to join in the thousands. The boundaries of our region are separated by artificial boundaries. This map is not a realistic map. This map is not possible to live [with].”[31] Ural was referring to Hatay Province, which was annexed by Turkey in 1939.[32] In the interview, Ural also said there were 2,000 Turkish militiamen operating inside the Syrian border along the southern point of Hatay Province, with forces in the towns of Idlib, Serkin and Kassab.[33]

Ural is now infamous for his alleged involvement in massacres in the Syrian towns of Bayda and Baniyas in May 2013. The deaths of hundreds of people, mostly civilians including women and children, were recorded by anti-Assad activists, including the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.[34] Some civilians in the towns were executed in groups, while others were stabbed or set on fire.[35] In a video posted to YouTube that was purportedly filmed before the massacres, Mihrac Ural was filmed saying: “Baniyas is the only passage to the sea for those traitors. Jableh cannot be a passage or a dwelling for the enemies, but Baniyas can be. We must quickly besiege it, and I mean it, and start the cleansing…The Syrian resistance’s banner is cleansing, and we don’t have any political or authoritarian ideology; as long as there is a government there is authority…And we will go to the battlefield in Baniyas this week, if we have to, and fulfill our national duty.”[36]

The Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C)
Mihrac Ural is not the only threat to Turkey. Various leftist and anti-Ankara terrorist groups sought refuge in Syria and fostered ties with the Syrian regime under Hafiz al-Assad during the closing decades of the last century. In efforts that were typical of the al-Assad regime’s attempts to play opposing sides off each other, the elder al-Assad courted the PKK until the threat of war with Ankara reached a zenith in 1998.[37] Although ties were not of the same importance as with the PKK, both Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad’s myriad security forces kept links with the DHKP/C.[38]

Besides Mihrac Ural’s militant group, the DHKP/C is the most prominent other Turkish group supporting al-Assad, and it has been suggested recently that the DHKP/C and Ural are coordinating their activities in Syria against Turkey and Syrian rebel groups.[39] Acilciler, which is headed by Ural, and the DHKP/C had largely been cooperating separately with Syrian security agencies—the DHKP/C through its ties with the PKK,[40] and Acilciler/Ural through links with the Alawite/Hatay THKP/C.

Haber 7, a Turkish news agency, reported in March 2013 that the popular newspaper Sabah uncovered a DHKP/C training camp in northwest Syria close to the Turkish border and next to a Syrian government military complex.[41] According to the report, pictures of the training camp in Latakia Province were recovered by Turkish intelligence agencies who reported that 200 people were in the facility, one of whom was believed to be Mihrac Ural.[42]

The DHKP/C has been responsible for terrorist attacks on government and Western targets inside Turkey, as well as criminal enterprises, since 1994. The U.S. government designated it a foreign terrorist organization in 2005.[43] One of the group’s public attacks in Turkey include Ugur Bulbul’s suicide attack on a police station at Taksim Square in Istanbul in September 2001, which killed two police officers and a civilian.[44] More recently, Turkish authorities blamed the DHKP/C for the suicide attack on the U.S. Embassy in Ankara in February 2013.[45] The group claimed responsibility for that attack, saying that it was an “act of self-sacrifice” against the United States, the “murderer of the people of the world.”[46] In January 2013, 21 members of the group were arrested, among them lawyers, who were suspected of leaking state secrets to the Syrian and Greek governments.[47]

Since the uprising in Syria took hold in March 2011, the fraying of the Syrian state has created the ideal climate for militancy and non-state terrorism to thrive. The Syrian regime has, for the most part, lost favor with Syrian Kurds because of the ongoing war and as a result of a PKK-Ankara cease-fire. In response, Damascus appears to be cultivating links with other non-Syrian, anti-Ankara elements—groups with which it can deny association. Its relationship with the DHKP/C can be construed in this way: supporting a group willing to terrorize Ankara and leveraging it to its own benefit.

The cease-fire between Ankara and the PKK and the growing threat from Syria mean that the Turkish state’s security focus must now undergo a recalibration. The threat to Turkey’s southern regions will increase the longer the war in Syria continues. Syria’s slide into a widening sinkhole allows individuals such as Ural or groups like the DHKP/C to plot and plan long-term attacks on the Turkish state with impunity.

In addition to Ural’s activities in Syria, there is also an emergent threat from Alawite insurgents inside Turkey who support the al-Assad regime because of perceived shared communal and religious identities. The bombing on the Turkish side of the Cilvegozu-Bab al-Hawa border crossing in February 2013, which apparently targeted Syrian opposition figures, is only one example of the Turkish state’s loss of control over security in the border region. The Reyhanli bombings in May marked the deadliest manifestation of this development.[48]

Reyhanli, six miles from the Turkish border station of Cilvegozu, has been swamped by Syrian refugees fleeing the war. Although Turkish authorities are attempting to close the crossing,[49] other parts of the border remain porous. As a result, terrorist elements—and Syrian rebels—will continue to enjoy easy access to both countries. Figures such as Mihrac Ural will continue to thrive and prosper—and Turkey’s national security will waver—as the fighting and sectarian unrest continue in Syria.[50]

Stephen Starr is a freelance journalist and author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising. He lived in Syria from 2007-2012. He now resides in Istanbul.

[1] Constanze Letsch, “Kurds Dare to Hope as PKK Fighters’ Ceasefire with Turkey Takes Hold,” Guardian, May 7, 2013.

[2] Matthew Weaver, “Turkey Blames Syria over Reyhanli Bombings,” Guardian, May 12, 2013.

[3] Karabekir Akkoyunlu, “Driven to Distraction,” The Majalla, May 16, 2013; “Bombings Receive Scant Coverage in Turkish Media, Fueling Anger,” Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2013.

[4] Kareem Fahim and Sebnem Arsu, “Arrests and Calls for Calm in Turkey,” New York Times, May 12, 2013.

[5] Shabiha are Alawite militias that fight on behalf of the Syrian state.

[6] Known in Syria by the name Ali Kyali, more information on his background is available at Joshua Landis, “Do the Massacres in Bayda and Banyas Portend to Ethnic Cleansing to Create an Alawite State?” SyriaComment, May 13, 2013.

[7] Turkey’s Alevi population number around 10-15% of the population and are distinct from Turkish Alawites, the latter being Arab and not Turk. Turkish Alevis and Turkish Alawites (who are ethnic Arabs) share similar belief systems. See Soner Cagaptay, “Are Syrian Alawites and Turkish Alevis the Same?” CNN, April 17, 2012.

[8] Didem Collinsworth, “Hatay: The Syrian Crisis and a Case of Turkish Economic Resilience,” Turkish Policy Quarterly 12:1 (2013): pp. 119-124.

[9] “Alawite Turks” are Turkish nationals, but they are ethnic Arabs. Turkish Alevis and Alawite Turks have similar belief systems but they are different in a number of other ways. Both communities are in conflict with fleeing Syrian refugees and rebels in Hatay Province. See Khairi Abaza and Soner Cagaptay, “Alawites and Alevis: What’s in a Name?” Fikra Forum, October 11, 2012.

[10] William Booth, “In Turkey, Alawite Sect Sides with Syria’s Assad,” Washington Post, September 14, 2012.

[11] “Blurring the Borders: Syrian Spillover Risks for Turkey,” International Crisis Group, April 30, 2013.

[12] “Prime Minister Erdogan Visits Bomb-Hit Reyhanli-UPDATED,”, May 25, 2013.

[13] Stephen Schwartz, “Erdogan, Iran, Syrian Alawites, and Turkey Alevis,” Weekly Standard, March 29, 2012.

[14] Selcan Hacaoglu and Dana El Baltaji, “Turkey Arrests Nine in Deadly Bombings Blamed on Syria,” Bloomberg, May 12, 2013.

[15] Landis; Ismail Saymaz, “Head of Accused Group Denies Responsibility, Blames Israel for Reyhanlı Bomb Attack,” Hurriyet, May 14, 2013.

[16] Aydin Albayrak, “Mihrac Ural, a Man with a Long History of Terrorism,” Today’s Zaman, May 14, 2013.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Abdullah Bozkurt, “Role of Iran and Syria in THKP/C Terrorism Against Turkey,” Today’s Zaman, September 21, 2012.

[19] The Turkish People’s Liberation Party/Front (THKP/C), also known as the similarly-named Turkish People’s Liberation Front, is a communist/socialist militia group that was influential among Turkish leftists in late 1960s/early 1970s. It is viewed as a founding organization for a series of leftist splinter groups, including the DHKP/C, although it is no longer thought to be an active organization in Turkey.

[20] For a brief background with context of the Syrian conflict, see Hugh Eakin, “Will Syria’s Revolt Disrupt the Turkish Borderlands?” New York Review of Books, June 24, 2011.

[21] Albayrak; Hacaoglu and El Baltaji.

[22] “Assad Massacres are an Ethnic Cleansing Strategy, Says Turkey,” Times, May 10, 2013.

[23] Recai Komur, “Hatay Rally Supporting Assad is Work of Syrian Organization,” Sabah, September 3, 2012.

[24] For details, see this unverifiable image taken from Twitter and posted May 30, 2013, available at

[25] Landis.

[26] “New Announcement on the Reyhanli Attacks by Foreign Minister Davutoglu,” Sabah, May 22, 2013.

[27] Saymaz.

[28] Mahmut Hamsici, “Suriye’de isyancılara karsı savasan Türkiyeliler,” BBC Turkce, September 2, 2012.

[29] There are a host of videos uploaded to YouTube and other video websites in recent months purportedly showing Ural speaking Syrian Arabic, dressed in military fatigues and boasting the strength and resilience of the al-Assad regime. Here, he refers to the “Syrian resistance” as taking “revenge on every oppressor” from across the Turkish border, naming Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and “neo-Ottomans” as having sent the unnamed “oppressors”:

[30] Hamsici.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Anne Barnard and Hania Mourtada, “An Atrocity in Syria, With No Victim Too Small,” New York Times, May 14, 2013.

[35] “Pro-Regime Militant Speaks of ‘Cleansing’ Banias,” NOW, May 6, 2013.

[36] Such video footage cannot be independently verified, but that presented in the following link was uploaded to the internet on May 5, 2013, two to three days after the massacres at Baniyas: Lauren Williams, “Alawite Turk Urges Bania Cleansing,” Lebanon Daily Star, May 9, 2013.

[37] “World: Turkey Losing Patience with Syria,” BBC, October 4, 1998.

[38] “Terrorist Organization Profile: DHKP/C,” National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), undated.

[39] “Iste DHKP-C’nin Suriye üssü,” Haber 7, March 31, 2013.

[40] Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, “Turkish Attack a Reminder of Cold War Dynamics,” CNN, February 3, 2013.

[41] “Iste DHKP-C’nin Suriye üssü.”

[42] Ibid.

[43] “Terrorist Organization Profile: DHKP/C.”

[44] “Three Die in Istanbul Suicide Bomb,” BBC, September 10, 2001.

[45]  Mike Giglio, “What’s Behind the Turkey Bombing? A Look at the DHKP/C,” Daily Beast, February 2, 2013.

[46] “DHKP-C Group Claims US Embassy Suicide Blast in Ankara,” BBC, February 2, 2013.

[47] Ibid.

[48]  Matthew Weaver, “Three Opposition Leaders Narrowly Missed Bomb Attack,” Guardian, February 12, 2013.

[49] “Turkey to Build 2.5 Kilometre-Long Wall on Syria Border,” Hurriyet, May 23, 2013.

[50] Moreover, if an Alawite “statelet” is created in Syria’s west—where Ural has lived since the early 1980s—it would also grant him a refuge from where he could continue terrorist plotting against Turkey.

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